Friday, August 11, 2017

Los Gatos Freight Yard

Los Gatos sat at a unique position along the South Pacific Coast Railroad's original line. It marked the southern extent of the non-mountainous portion of the railroad's primary route. It also was never supposed to happen. The original route was intended to cross Los Gatos Creek near Bentley Avenue, but when blue clay was found, the right-of-way was transferred to the west side of the creek. This benefited Los Gatos tremendously, though. By placing the right-of-way between Santa Cruz Avenue and University Avenue, there was sufficient space for a small freight yard. And a freight yard was desperately needed on the northern side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Thousands of board feet of lumber passed through the station daily, while other agricultural goods and products also often stopped at Los Gatos.

A train approaching the Los Gatos Freight Yard from San Francisco, 1918. The crossing is Elm Street and the photographer is standing on the roof of the Opera House at Main and University. [A Centennial, Bruce McGregor]
Originally, the entire yard was sandwiched between Main and Elm Streets, behind the row of buildings that lined Santa Cruz Avenue. During the first 25 years, while the yard was narrow-gauge, a turntable sat beside a locomotive house that could hold the local switch engine and its tender. Initially, the yard only had a single spur to the Los Gatos Fruit Packing Company, but around 1890 a second one was extended to the Lyndon & Sylverson lumber yard to the east of the engine house. The tall water tower sat just beside the engine house on main line. The main track split into three parallel sidings that all ran south over Main Street until uniting again just before reaching today's State Route 17. A planing mill and box factory that passed through multiple hands over the decades was the only freight patron located directly in the yard grounds.

Sanborn map showing the narrow-gauge Los Gatos freight yard at its height, 1895. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections]
The conversion to standard-gauged tracks was gradual and began around the turn of the century. By 1904, the transition was complete and the freight yard was substantially rearranged as a result, encompassing a grand total of 5,204 feet of track space for parking railroad cars. The turntable was moved to the former site of the planing mill, directly beside Elm Street. The engine house, meanwhile, was enlarged to supported two locomotives with tenders on parallel spurs. The new, larger water tower was now south of the engine house, but still beside the mainline. The remaining yard tracks more closely resembled those from before, with a short spur built for the lumber yard east of the mainline. But the lumber spur would eventually be extended two blocks to the Hunts cannery on Los Gatos-Saratoga Road (now State Route 9) and it would become a siding.

Sanborn map showing the standard-gauge Los Gatos freight yard, 1904. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Map]
Over the following years, the freight yard continued to expand in small ways, eventually reaching a top yard size of 9,322 feet by 1912. The sidings to the south  eventually expanded to support five sets of rails, although all of these eventually merged with the mainline before reaching Cats Canyon. Meanwhile, the spur to the cannery across Santa Cruz Avenue was removed around 1907 and the line to the old Forbes Mill no later than 1918, although it was out of service from 1907. This certainly made for a cleaner yard overall. It is unclear when the turntable and engine house were removed, but it may have been as early as the 1910s since they do not appear in photographs from the 1920s. The installation of the wye at Vasona around 1907 meant that local trains could turn without the need for a turntable. With their removal, the yard became significantly less important to local railroading. Two pairs of tracks remained active until the end of the line in 1959, with remnants of at least two others paved over rather than removed outright. These were used primarily by the Standard Oil Company, the Sacred Heart Novitiates' winery, and Sterling Lumber Company, the latter two of which remained patrons when the track to Los Gatos was pulled.

Los Gatos freight yard in 1928. Former site of turntable and engine house at left. [John & Barbara Baggerly]
Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
37.223˚N, 121.983˚W

The site of the freight yard is still publicly accessible today along Station Way, which is a nostalgic name for the series of parking lots that run behind Santa Cruz Avenue between Main and Elm Streets. The only remnant of the freight yard remaining is the relatively open space between these two streets.

Citations & Credits:

  • Kelley, Edward, and Peggy Conaway. Images of Rail: Railroads of Los Gatos. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2006.
  • Whaley, Derek. Santa Cruz Trains: Railroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, CA, 2015.

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